Scientists from Switzerland to Australia are working to soften the expected blow of La Nina, a weather phenomenon that meteorologists say may have a more severe impact on global weather patterns than El Nino, now dwindling.
El Nino has been blamed for everything from wildfires in Indonesia to the migration of killer bees from South America into Nevada. Its latest crime was the Florida wildfires.
El Nino is a warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific that occurs every few years around Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus; hence the name "the infant." This year's El Nino, which is beginning to fizzle, was the strongest ever recorded.
As El Nino gives way, a new anomaly, La Nina, will begin affecting world weather patterns this fall and into the winter. It will have nearly the opposite effects of the departing El Nino.
"In Indonesia you will have wet conditions rather than the droughts you had with El Nino," said Ed O'Lenic, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.
Scientists are collecting data about the effects of El Nino to get a complete picture of the phenomenon in hopes of better preparing for La Nina.
"The role of El Nino in causing world weather disasters is the subject of a lot of research," Mr. O'Lenic said.
Scientists now think the dust bowl of the 1930s may have been El Nino-related, he said.
A wetter-than-normal winter in Florida contributed to the growth of vegetation, which provided fuel for the recent Florida fires, said Bob Livzey, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center.
"Unquestionably, El Nino set that fire problem up," he said.
This El Nino is the latest in a string of El Ninos that have increased in frequency since 1970.
A GLOBAL TREND
In the last 20 years, an El Nino has brewed in the tropical Pacific every few years. But before 1970 an El Nino occurrence was rare, about one every 10 years, Mr. Livzey said.
Scientists are examining the high frequency of El Nino occurrences in the context of global trends, like global warming.
Some researchers have suggested there is a relationship between global warming and the rising number of El Ninos, Mr. Livzey said.
"One theory suggests the occurrence of El Ninos are a response to help the planet adjust to mean annual temperature increases," he said. "Some think El Nino may be an adjustment mechanism to help distribute the warming. There are periods in the past where El Nino has matched increases in temperature."
The increase in El Nino frequency is part of what brought it into the consciousness of the scientific community and has recently made it a household name, Mr. Livzey said.
During the El Nino of 1982-83, a particularly strong one, he said, buildings in California slid into the Pacific and surf blew out windows.
"People began to realize there really was this thing called El Nino," he said.
International preparations are under way for La Nina. Scientists are coordinating a system of early-warning forecasts with local emergency response.
Worldwide efforts to handle El Nino paid off, and improvements in forecasting are expected to lead to lessened impacts in the future, Mr. Livzey said.
"People have had their consciousness raised," he said. "The evidence is overwhelming that these kinds of warnings led to mitigation efforts that reduced losses. …